MOTHER STANDS FOR COMFORT
By Stephanie M. Sklar
My mother, Adeilda Nunes Sklar, was born in Cupe Beach, Brazil on September 9, 1939. Although she looked a lot like her brothers and sisters, there were two features that set her apart – her blonde hair and the pink hues of her pale skin. Both of these traits were uncommon of the people in this region of Brazil, who typically had olive skin and dark hair. I have often thought that God gave her these characteristics as His way of ensuring that people would notice how special she was – how beautiful she was – inside and out.
Her parents raised her and her siblings in a house made of mud. The family was poverty-stricken. When Mom was 6 years old, she began helping her family wash dishes for wealthier families in town to put food on the table. Her father also did his part working as a farmer. Being that they had no indoor plumbing, each family member took turns getting water from a nearby river. In spite of the family’s tireless efforts to obtain food, it was not unusual for her and her siblings to go to school on an empty stomach. Whenever things got rough, which was a lot of the time, their father would flee. He was always gone too long and each time he finally returned, it would be with a sack, containing a brand new cat for my mom. He told her to rub butter on the cat’s nose in order to make sure that it didn’t stray too far from home. Maybe the family should have tried that with him! Mom got married when she was 20 years old to Reginaldo DeFreitas. Being the virtuous Catholic woman that her parents brought her up to be, she was still a virgin. So when the newlyweds’ wedding night arrived, she was understandably terrified. She began crying and told her husband she wanted to go home to her mother. I think a considerable part of her anxiety also stemmed from the fact that he was nine years older than her and had far more experience in this department.
On July 21, 1963, the couple welcomed a baby girl into the world. They named her Zelia. She was a beautiful baby with fair skin, almond-shaped brown eyes, a perfect slender nose, and full lips. Her father showed her off every chance he got, pushing her in her stroller on the beach.
He often returned from shopping trips in the city with succulent, sweet oranges that he knew his daughter enjoyed as well as something for Mom, such as a tablecloth that he knew she would love.
Unfortunately, he almost always overexerted himself, which worsened a health condition he had called a ventricular septal defect (hole in the heart). His lips would turn purple from exhaustion and he would sometimes vomit blood. Sadly, my sister was just shy of 2 years old when he passed away. Mom and Zelia were devastated beyond words. What would they do now? As a very young widow, Mom would now have to raise her daughter by herself. It was time to do some serious re-evaluating of her life and what direction she wanted it to go in for the sake of her and her child.
Mom and Zelia emigrated to the States in 1967 on a diplomat visa granted through her husband’s sister. They lived with her since they had just arrived in the States with no money and were unable to speak/understand English. In order to support herself and Zelia, she was a housekeeper for some very wealthy families in Washington, DC. After work, Mom would attend night classes to learn English. Eventually, her hard work paid off and they were able to move into an efficiency apartment. With the help of a fantastic woman named Emma Britto, Zelia was enrolled in St. Thomas, a private Catholic school. My sisters and I later affectionately referred to Emma as “Aunt Em” because she was even closer than family to us.
On April 4, 1968, Mom and Zelia were walking down the street in Washington, DC when a police car drove up. The police officer told them to get off the street. Mom and Zelia knew very little English at that point. So they didn’t understand what he meant. They watched chaos erupt around them in confusion. Zelia recalls a blur of people throwing things. The police officer led them into the squad car and escorted them to safety. They didn’t realize until later that Martin Luther King, Jr. had just been shot and they were in the middle of a riot. If the well-known archival footage revealed utter mayhem, imagine being right in the middle of it!
In 1969, Mom began dating a man named Alfredo Gonzales, a Puerto Rican chef. She did not realize this until much later, but she figured out that he was most likely married with children since he would only stop by in the evenings to see her. She had only been in the United States for a bit over a year at that time and was still very naïve and trusting. When she broke the news to him that she was pregnant and that he was the father, he delivered the lowest of low blows. “How do you know it’s mine?” he asked her. Mom prided herself on monogamy. Therefore, this insinuation was indescribably insulting to her. Soon after, he was in a car accident that landed him in the hospital. Mom went to visit him there. His head was wrapped in bandages. When she tried to reach out to him, he backed away and shuddered in pain. When Mom told me this years later, I always perceived this act as a non-verbal cue for her to stay away from him because he didn’t want to be bothered. Mom probably read this gesture in a similar manner because she immediately left, defeated, and she never turned back. To this day, no one knows if he survived the accident or not.
A few months later, the daughter of a wealthy family Mom worked for noticed she was expecting a baby. Apparently, the daughter was incapable of having children and her mother asked Mom if they could adopt the baby. Mom was outraged beyond belief. “I’ll sleep under a bridge if I have to, but it will be with my kids!” Needless to say, the woman never broached the subject with her again. Still understandably infuriated by the incident earlier that day, she told Aunt Em about it. Aunt Em smiled and called her “Mother.” From then on, instead of using Mom’s first name, she would always call Mom “Mother.”
During this difficult time in a new country, with a baby on the way, Mom’s in-laws all had an opinion as to what she should do about the baby. They preached to her that a child out of wedlock was worse than having an abortion and that she would go to hell if she chose to have a child out of wedlock. Abortion was most definitely not an option. It went against everything Mom stood for. All her life, she had done her best to be a good Catholic as well as a good human being. She consulted a priest who told her to have her child and raise her with pride. From the day my sister, Maria, was born on November 14, 1970 and then on, that’s exactly what Mom did.
In 1973, Mom met a door-to-door salesman named Steve Sklar. He was selling vacuum cleaners and had made a sale to Mom. During the sale, Maria sat on his lap and told him that he was handsome. They hit it off right away. Maria and Steve played golf – Maria serving as the caddy at 3 years old! Steve picked Maria up from Jewish day camp, which she loved and had a new prayer to recite for everyone when she got home. They pigged out on ice cream. Mom and Steve got married on July 25, 1975. He adopted my sisters shortly after and Mom and Zelia went to Canada to get their green cards.
I was born on December 8, 1977 at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland. The doctor performed a c-section on Mom in order to ensure her safety and mine because she was 38 years old. It was held in high regard in Mom’s culture to be married to an American man and to have an American child. Mom said I was the most beautiful newborn and my family and I have the pictures to prove it of her holding me with so much love and pride.
I didn’t have an easy start in life. My father was hospitalized for depression when I was 2 years old. When I was told he wouldn’t be back for quite some time, I lost it. I threw myself on the floor, crying hysterically. From then on, I refused to talk as well as eat or drink anything. When I wanted something, I would point to what it was. I ended up in the hospital from being severely dehydrated and had to be fed intravenously. I nearly died. To this day, I have always been amazed at how Mom did it. She raised me and my two sisters all on her own, making sure our needs were always met. I’m sure there were plenty of times when she felt like she was going out of her mind and felt like running away from it all, but she didn’t. No matter how overwhelming things got, she stuck by our sides. I always thanked her later for that and let her know how much it meant to me.
By 1982, it had been 16 years since the last time Mom had seen her own mother, Antonia Maria. To say she was homesick for her would be an understatement of gargantuan proportions. So we took a trip to Brazil and I was able to finally meet the Brazilian side of my family. I must admit, I was the most excited to meet my grandma, Vovo (Grandmother in Portuguese). She looked like an older version of Mom with long, silver hair that was pulled back in a bun. It made her look very dignified. She was also more reserved than Mom was. My favorite memory of Vovo is the two of us gazing at each other with these huge smiles on our faces as she brushed out that beautiful, long, silver hair of hers. Because of the language barrier, there was very little else we could do. I would like to think, though, that with each smile we exchanged, we were saying “I love you” and “I’m so glad to finally meet you” to one another.
Cupe Beach, Mom’s birthplace, was breathtaking. We’d go for long walks, admiring the large coconut trees that had the baby coconut trees growing out of the tops of them. We’d splash around in the water that was so clear you could see your feet. My family there was very friendly and laid-back. On our return to the airport in Miami, I went up to a man and said hi. I was just 4 years old, but he scowled at me and put a newspaper that he had been reading back up in front of his face. “We’re back in the United States, aren’t we?” I asked glumly. Mom nodded and laughed. I think she found my perceptiveness at such a young age quite amusing.
There are two favorite stories from my childhood that stick out in my mind. I was 9 years old and it was Field Day. My third grade class was competing against another third grade class. It was the perfect day for Field Day – very sunny and mild out. We took our places on the huge, open field for a race and our Physical Education teacher fired a starting gun in the air. I ran so fast that the wind shook my hair, face, and my whole body as I heard Mom’s screams in the distance and my team cheering me on. I won 1st place. Mom let out her cute, little laugh as she picked me up, swung me around, and hugged me. My teammates shouted with excitement as they congratulated me and high-fived me.
The second story took place the summer before I began the fourth grade. My parents had just returned from Acapulco, Mexico and Mom had got me a beautiful opal ring with two small diamonds on each side of the opal. I was at a friend’s house and we were playing the piano when I noticed she was wearing my ring! I held out my hand and inspected it and, sure enough, it was gone from the finger I had worn it on. How did she get a hold of it?! Did it fall off of my finger?! My heart was racing.
I asked her where she got the ring. She said her mom brought it back for her from her trip in Acapulco, Mexico. “Your mom hasn’t taken any trips this summer. My mom just returned from Mexico and brought me back that ring. I told you that when she got back. It’s my ring and I want it back.” This friend of mine was the oldest of our group – the ringleader. She was going to be in the fifth grade in the fall. “Can you believe her?!” she asked our friends. “She’s trying to say I’m a thief.” All eyes were on me – angry eyes and they shook their heads in disbelief. “I don’t like people calling me a thief. Get out!” “Yeah, get out!” the other girls chanted. As I began leaving the house, I noticed some of the girls opening the doors, peeking out at me, snickering, and slamming them. I walked up the street to my house in tears.
I told Mom what happened. She was livid – not at me – but at Claire, who was supposed to be my best friend. She advised me not to play with her or the other girls involved in this mean-spirited mess until the proper accountability was taken and the ring was returned. “But what if she doesn’t return it?!” I asked, bursting into tears again. I was old enough to know that the stones on the ring were real and, therefore, the ring cost quite a bit of money. Mom reassured me that the ring would be returned.
A couple of days later, Claire and Cindy knocked on the door and asked if I could come out to play. I peeked out from the corner of the wall and shot them a look that was a mixture of hurt and anger. Mom instructed me to go back into the kitchen and that she would deal with it. And boy did she deal with it! She chewed them out big time, saying real friends didn’t do these kinds of things and that she didn’t know if she wanted her daughter to consort with people who lie and steal things of sentimental value from their “supposed” friends. The girls tried to apologize, but barely got a word in edgewise. Before I knew it, Mom came into the kitchen with my ring and slipped it back on my finger. I looked up at her and grinned. “Thanks, Mom.” She beamed at me and gave me a hug.
I always wondered why my friends did that to me after it happened and from time to time later on in life. I came to the conclusion that I had it pretty good when I was a kid and my friends often told me so. I had two parents under one roof. A lot of my friends came from broken homes. Their mothers rarely cooked. Mom would make pancakes every Saturday morning. I used to awake excitedly to the smell, knowing I’d get to enjoy them while watching Saturday morning cartoons. During the summer, I’d check in for lunch and she’d make the most amazing coldcut and white American cheese sandwiches on Kaiser rolls. She also made the best chicken. I’d cry later on each night at the dining hall well into the first half of my freshman year in college to my friends, claiming the chicken tasted nothing like Mom’s and that I missed not only the chicken, but her as well and wished I could be home, having dinner with her. How did she always manage to make the most ordinary foods taste so amazing, such as grilled cheese, tuna salad, etc.? It wasn’t only that she had a knack for cooking. She made everything from scratch and with a lot of love.
I could go on and on about the countless things I love about Mom. She loved me and my sisters unconditionally. Whether we got an A, B, C, D or F was irrelevant. She just wanted us to do our best. The average mom might find her child banging the living daylights out of her kitchen pans with a wooden spoon extremely annoying. Mom didn’t. She actually encouraged it. She’d get out the pans, give me the wooden spoon, and let me go to town on them. She laughed at the cling-clanging noise while she cooked dinner.
Whatever Mom set out to do, she did it with a fearlessness that I strive to emulate, whether it was her U.S. citizenship, which she finally obtained in 1984 or her becoming a CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant) at the age of 57, something that she had dreamt of being all her life. She used to say that taking care of people was beautiful. Everywhere she went, people fell in love with her – the doctor’s office, the grocery store, the hair salon, etc. She was like a magnet to people and they would talk to her for ages. Whenever my sisters and I went to such places without her, people would ask us how she was doing and tell us how fond they were of her.
Her hair was so soft and beautiful. I rarely recall her having a bad hair day. Her clothes and shoes were very stylish. My sister and I have often commented on how fun it was to watch her evolve over the years. Her hair got lighter and the style became far less traditional looking and her fashion sense improved in a major way. She also became more assertive, outgoing, and outspoken. Basically, she learned to not take herself so seriously and began to relax.
Mom loved gardening. There were very few things she planted that didn’t grow. Whatever type of flower or plant it was, it usually grew to be very lush and beautiful, as if she had a magic touch. My favorite was a strawberry garden that she grew especially for me in the backyard of the first house my family and I lived in. I have yet to taste strawberries as delicious as the ones Mom grew.
Whether she was here or abroad with my father on a business trip, she took pictures that rivaled the work of famous photographers. I believe she saw things through a much more beautiful lens than most people. She noticed things that the average person took for granted or overlooked. Maybe it was because she grew up with very few creature comforts and had to work so hard to get to where she wanted to be in life. I remember her standing by the window, sipping her coffee as she marveled at how blue and cloudless the sky was. She had a similar look one year when we were standing out on a balcony, watching the fireworks one summer in Ocean City, Maryland. Her profile was illuminated by the red of the fireworks and she had a serene, peaceful look on her face. I put my arm around her waist. She looked at me and smiled, wrapping her arm around my waist as well. “They’re beautiful, aren’t they?” “Yes,” I replied as I gazed at her lovingly, knowing I would remember that moment forever.
Mom was diagnosed with Stage III ovarian cancer in April of 2003. After the operation, I went in to see her. She was white as a sheet. I caressed her face. Her skin was always so smooth. She opened her eyes and gazed at me with so much love. “Hi, linda,” she said and I got choked up. Linda, pronounced leen-duh, means pretty in Portuguese. The fact that she felt so crappy after the surgery and yet could still muster up the strength to call me this term of endearment will always move me so.
I became my mom’s primary caregiver in 2004. It was easily the greatest achievement of my life. I spent the night at her house a lot of the time, doing everything possible to try and help make her life run a little more smoothly. I did a lot of the housework, kept track of her doctor’s appointments, sat down with her and wrote out questions she had for her oncologist for an upcoming appointment, accompanied her to most of her chemo appointments, and made coffee. She said I made the best coffee. “I feel much more secure when you come over,” she told me one day over one of our many cups of coffee. “Aw, Mom.” “It’s true.” “Thanks,” I said, grinning from ear to ear. To say I was flattered would be an understatement.
She slept with a rosary that glowed in the dark, recited “I Said a Prayer for You Today” every morning for me and my sisters, and kept the check for $6,000 that was the down payment she made for my sister’s first house in her Bible in the top drawer of her nightstand. She also wore what my sister and I called the “bling” necklace because it had so many charms on it. Being that it was her good luck necklace and, therefore, it made her feel more secure when she had it on, she rarely took it off. It consisted of four female figurines, which represented me, my two older sisters, and my niece, Kaitlin; an evil eye; a Brazilian fist; and a St. Jude Thaddeus pendant I bought her shortly after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
In the last days of my mom’s life, Maria and I rarely slept or left our mom’s side. We reasoned that it was the least we could do after all the times she had stayed up with us around the clock when we were sick with something when we were younger and she rarely left our sides until we felt better. As I kept vigil over her, I thought of all of the hospital scares and battles she had won with cancer. She was the strongest person I had ever known and I know there will never be one as strong as her. I continued watching her, hoping and praying for a miracle, but that didn’t happen.
Mom was 67 when she passed away on January 14, 2007. That was way too young. The nurses and the doctors who helped her in her last days in the hospital and who also knew her from previous and frequent trips on account of her not feeling well were getting choked up. As I mentioned earlier, that was just the kind of person she was. Everybody loved her. She was warm and personable. Even when she was in the worst pain in her last days, she was nothing but courteous to the nursing staff, thanking them for helping her and calling them “sweetie” or “honey.”
At the end of my mom’s life, and especially after she passed, I remember shaking uncontrollably from head to toe and my legs feeling unsteady, like jelly, and sometimes like they weren’t even there. I also felt extremely nauseous and the floor kept coming up to meet me. I thought I was going to pass out. I guess you could attribute these symptoms to a series of really bad panic attacks that arose from my mom slipping away from me and the powerlessness I felt in not being able to stop her from slipping away. Plus, I had been too nervous to eat or sleep properly. I was heartbroken and still am. I missed my mom and I always will. My security blanket had been yanked out from under me – my mom.
I will never get to do the many things we did together ever again, like hugging, having a good cup of coffee, having a good laugh, having good conversation, watching her eyes light up when she opened a present I gave her, and sitting on the edges of our seats, watching boxing or a good suspense flick.
Maybe one day we’ll get to sit out on the porch of that huge house I promised you when my first book gets published, sipping coffee, talking, and laughing. The house will rest on a big, fluffy cloud. Until then, for what seems like eternity without you, I miss you and love you beyond words and I’ll be seeing you.